Lia stood at the boat entrance and welcomed the last of the passengers aboard with her friendliest smile. They milled about in clusters in their blue jeans and tennis shoes, some sitting on the bright blue cushions along the back of the cat, some jogging toward the front where the blue lattice nets were, their cameras bobbing against their sweatshirt-clad stomachs. A family of seagulls squawked overhead and landed at the highest point on the catamaran, chests puffed, as if waiting for their ride, too. The sun broke through the gray sky and cast spotlight rays along the deck.
Lia took the last ticket and craned her neck toward the wood-shingled shops at the Sandy Cove marina to see if she could see any limos that might belong to Kyle Stevens. A limo would certainly stand out in Sandy Cove.
But he hadn’t shown. They were two minutes late now, and she didn’t know if she should wait. When a young multimillionaire booked a pre-charter check for , were you supposed to give him special treatment? She bit her lip. When he was the Vampiress’s favorite client, and the son of her dream client, you did. . . .
She let the passengers find their places while she fumbled with the main-deck microphone. There was another one up in the bridge, but she didn’t want to use the one next to Mr. Grumpy. While she waited, she rummaged through the drawers in the galley until she found what she was looking for: one of Drew’s whale books. As she flipped through, she scraped her mind to remember anything Drew had told her about whales, or how he usually started his presentation. She’d been on this ride with him several times, sometimes on business so she could give him marketing tips, and other times on private outings with their friends because Drew loved it so much.
Baleen. The word jumped off the page. He always explained that to them, and how whales were divided into baleen and something else. . . .
“Welcome, everyone!” she began into the microphone. “We hope you enjoy your visit today on the Duke. My name is Lia, and I’ll be narrating for you today. We have Captain Evan Betancourt navigating our ship, and Coraline Jones offering coffee, soft drinks, popcorn, and other sundries in the galley. . . .”
“And chocolate-walnut cookies!” Coraline yelled.
Lia had to bend down from her perch outside the galley door to peer inside toward Cora’s voice. “What?”
“I brought homemade chocolate-walnut cookies!” Cora said in a stage whisper. “One free per passenger.”
“. . . And homemade chocolate-walnut cookies,” Lia said into the microphone. “One free per passenger.”
Giddy claps erupted from the first-graders.
The motor gave a funny rev right then, like an impatient boyfriend gunning his V-8 in the parking lot, and Lia wondered if that was Evan’s weird way of communicating. She glanced up the steps. She didn’t want to extend their interaction any more than she had to—he’d made his request pretty clear—but she clicked off the microphone and jogged up to see if everything was okay. On the second step, though, she winced and grabbed her ankle. This thing was going to swell like crazy once she got off it. She remembered the Advil packet and emergency ice sitting on the galley counter and gave two small points to Captain Betancourt.
Up at the helm, Evan had found a pair of Drew’s binoculars and was adjusting them with another scowl.
“Are you signaling me?” she asked, trying to throw enough indignation into her voice to let him know she didn’t like to be summoned with engine revs.
“We ready?” he drawled.
The view from up here was pretty spectacular—she never came up here with Drew. The entire north end of the marina was visible, a thicket of white masts sticking up like matchsticks against the jewel-tone blue of the ocean. On the other side, palm trees and Cape Cod-styled buildings surrounded a brick-lined patio to make up the small Sandy Cove marina: two gift shops, a tackle shop, a high-end clothing shop, a sandwich-and-coffee shop, and the ticket office. Lia took a split second to take it all in, along with a deep breath of salt air. Navigating from up this high must be pretty life affirming.
“We’re missing a few people,” she said, taking one last sweep of the shingled shops and hydrangea-lined parking lot. “But it is past ten.”
“Do you know how to cast off the lines?”
“Oh . . . not exactly.” She glanced down at the cleats on the dock. “I can probably manage if you show me. How many are there?” From up here, she could see they crossed one another like a game of cat’s cradle.
“Four.” Evan ducked under the canopy and lumbered down the stairs and through the crowd of tourists.
So much for keeping him hidden from the guests.
Lia followed, leaping off the boat where he did, watching him unravel the first line from the cleat. His movements were natural and forceful, despite the hangover—like some kind of machine on autopilot. “Get that one down there.”
They made their way down the dock, untying all four lines, tossing them onto the boat, then Evan stepped lithely on board, looping the lines around his arm and stowing them with quick, deft movements. Lia tried to mimic him, peering down the deck to see how he wrapped them around his muscled arms, but he finally strode in her direction and took the rope from her. “Go talk,” he murmured.
She went back to the microphone and flipped through Drew’s book to the section on baleen. “So I asked all of you if you knew how many types of whales were in this part of the ocean today. Does anyone know the answer?”
The little kids from the field trip all shot their hands into the air, waving wildly, and Lia fielded answers, watching out of the corner of her eye for Kyle Stevens. Her gaze kept sliding, though, toward Evan, as he wrapped rope through his biceps and avoided eye contact with any of the passengers. And then her line of vision incorporated Avery, who had Evan securely in her sights. Avery’s lips parted as she watched Evan move down the port side. Fear didn’t seem to be part of her perusal.
Lia forced her attention back to the book.
“Whales are divided between baleen,” she announced, scanning the copy, “which means with teeth made of keratin, like our fingernails; and toothed whales, which are whales with real teeth.”
Evan glanced back at her, and she wondered for a second if she were getting the info right. His expression—especially behind the sunglasses—was inscrutable.
“We’ll be seeing mostly gray whales today, and possibly some blue, which are both baleen.”
At one point, Cora came out and finished stowing the last line. Evan gave Cora a deep nod of thanks in about the friendliest gesture Lia had seen from him so far, then he trudged up to the helm. Avery twisted in her seat to watch him from behind.
So Avery might be attracted to Evan. This was good, right? At least Lia wouldn’t have to worry about a blog write-up going out to thousands of readers a month discussing the scary captain aboard the Duke.
Lia took another look at Evan. Maybe the pirate thing was some women’s cup of tea.
As the boat began motoring away, making a slow, wide turn to point them out of the harbor, Lia took a deep breath and thumbed a few pages forward.
But then she glanced up and spotted Kyle Stevens jogging his way down the dock.
“Captain Betancourt! Captain Betancourt!”
Evan glanced over his shoulder to see Cinderella hobbling up the bridge stairs, but he riveted his concentration back to the turn. He had to give his little brother a lot of credit if he did this every day. Sandy Cove’s harbor was tricky, seemingly designed more for folks who wanted to hide behind its cliffs than for those looking for an open welcome mat.
He rolled his eyes. He wished she’d stop calling him that.
“Whaddaya need?” He eyed the distance to the jetty and calculated how wide he could make the turn. The sun glared off the water.
“We have to go back!” she said when she got to the top of the steps.
He frowned. This chick was crazy. “We’re halfway to the jetty,” he said calmly.
“There’s a passenger we left on the dock,” she stopped short and took a deep breath, her hands fluttering over the controls as if looking for a “back” button. “We have to get him. He’s here with four others.”
“Seems he’s here late.”
“But he’s important. We have to go back.”
“He should be here on time.”
The glance she threw made it clear he was no one to talk. But he chose to ignore that and forced the throttle instead.
“I’m serious!” She gripped his wrist.
When he glared at her hand, she yanked it away. She needed to stop doing that. She was clearly one of those touchy-feely types. But he wasn’t. And she needed to knock it off.
She stepped back, as if to give him some personal space, but she definitely wasn’t backing down.
“We have to go back.” Her fingers spread as she stared at the console. He could tell she was dying to control this—the vessel, the situation, him, something.
“We’d have to make the turn all the way back in, ready the fenders, loop the lines,” he said. “We’ll be twenty minutes off schedule.”
“It’s worth it.”
He ground his back teeth. Of course. She knew how to get to him already.
“And to me,” she added reluctantly, although she said it as if she knew it wouldn’t make any difference to him.
Her gaze drifted over his shoulder at this mysterious Big Deal Passenger, waving from the dock.
He threw the throttle again and maneuvered the tricky turn back. As he calculated the distance, he wondered again how Drew knew this chick. She had crazy written all over her. Her cheerleader exuberance wasn’t something Drew would normally be attracted to, so dating was off the table. Plus she’d said as much. And Evan had been damned sure to check. The last thing he needed was to get tangled in one of Drew’s relationships again.
“You’ll need to loop the stern line,” he grumbled. “Loosely. I’ll take the bow.”
She headed down while he concentrated on pulling back in. He did a stellar job, if he did say so himself. Especially with a hangover. The glasses helped keep the brightness down, from Drew’s squeaky-clean white deck, to the winter sun glaring off the water, to Cinderella’s tourism smile.
When the boat was snuggled tight, he headed down the steps and checked to see who garnered this type of attention. Must be some rich fat cat. Probably in a suit and tie and shiny shoes.
But all he saw was a youngish-looking dude in cargos and a T-shirt, with an Ivy League haircut and a watch that probably cost more than Evan’s sailboat. Cinderella was fawning all over him, so this must be the guy. Two beefy men stood behind him in dark shades—they could only be bodyguards. As Evan watched Cinderella dropping her head to the side in the universal sign for I find you attractive, he wondered what this asshole’s story was.
“I’ll get them,” he mumbled, stepping in front of her. They could do this without retying the whole vessel. He secured the back end, enough to let them step aboard, and reached out to help them by the elbow. The bodyguards, as expected, didn’t want to be helped. Mr. Big Deal Passenger allowed Evan to help him, though, which made Evan lose his last four millidrops of respect.
“Mr. Stevens!” Cinderella beamed. “It’s so great to have you aboard.”
“Aw, call me Kyle, Lia.” He cuffed her shoulder.
Evan rolled his eyes.
“Thanks for stopping for me,” he added.
“No problem,” Cinderella said. “Drew’s not here today, but this is his brother, Evan Betancourt!” She said it like being brothers was the most stunning coincidence in the universe.
Stevens turned, as if surprised that Evan was still there, and looked him up and down. “Nice to meet you.” He shoved his hand forward, and Evan finally shook it.
“So where’s Drew?”
Cinderella jumped in: “He was in a terrible motorcycle accident.”
That caught Stevens’s attention. “Motorcycle?” He said it with the kind of wonder that Evan associated with rich, entitled young men who were entitled to everything but risk.
“Yes, but he’s on the mend.”
“And you’re running the business in his absence?” Stevens gave Cinderella a quick once-over that seemed to hold some dubiousness. For some reason, her breasts and hips seemed to be an important part of his perusal.
Evan stepped into Stevens’s line of vision. “We’ve got to get going,” he said, taking the line from her. This Stevens character was rubbing him the wrong way.
“I am.” Cinderella moved around Evan. “We don’t expect any kind of bump in the road for the business. Come aboard.” She motioned with her hand, the model of efficiency. “Be sure to check out the underwater whale-viewing pods on the lower level. Your charter guests will love them.”
Stevens moved to one of the back benches with his bodyguards, who looked huge and uncomfortable in dark jackets. They didn’t exactly blend in. Cinderella got back on the microphone.
“We see several types of whales year-round, but at this time of year we see an abundance of gray whales . . .” she continued.
Evan jogged back up to the bridge and repeated his exit, watching the turn again and listening to Cinderella discuss everything she knew about gray whales. She was doing a pretty good job, he had to admit. She had a nice voice—not like her personality, but strangely calm once she was on the microphone.
“. . . The gray whales migrate from Alaska to Baja, Mexico, between December and early March, where they stay in the warmer waters, have their calves, then migrate back up from February to April or May, right along this coast. . . .”
They were a half hour late, but he could finally see some open sea. Stevens and his boys had moved well away from Cinderella, which felt like a strange relief. He didn’t know why that Stevens character was so important, and he certainly didn’t want to have a full conversation about it with Cinderella, but something wasn’t right about that guy.
Lia gave her overview of the gray whales’ migration, glancing around the boat to see where Kyle Stevens landed, and took a nervous sip of water between her narration.
She hoped he liked the trip. And hoped he didn’t have a lot of requests or changes for his charter next week. And hoped Evan could be a charitable-enough captain.
Clearly, Evan wasn’t going to help much. While Drew was friendly and personable, Evan all but had a “closed” sign hanging from his forehead. Whatever. She reiterated her plan in her head to keep Evan away from all passengers, especially Kyle Stevens. This trial-run tour had to go off without a hitch.
“. . . So take a look around the boat, be sure to take a peek at our viewing pods right down the stairs, check out some of our educational materials, and we’re going to go find some whales!” she said into the microphone with a positivity she didn’t feel.
The catamaran picked up speed right on cue. Drew did this, too—sped out to sea once they cleared the jetty. He knew they might have to look around for a while to see any whales, and they only had a couple of hours, so he always flew over the waves in the first part of the tour. Despite her skepticism about Evan—or maybe because of it—the similar style gave her hope.
Lia pulled a few strands of hair out of her lip gloss and turned into the wind. The couple in the matching college sweatshirts leaned against the rail, taking pictures of the Sandy Cove coastline. The fifteen first-graders were corralled along the starboard side, all holding hands in twos and threes, eyes barely clearing the rail.
Some of the moms introduced themselves to each other, wrapping themselves in their jackets against the wind, and Avery was—
Lia glanced around. Where was Avery?
Her gaze flew up to the bridge, where, sure enough, Avery’s sundress rippled in the wind.
Man, she sure hoped Avery wasn’t married. That was some dogged determination.
But she really wanted to keep Evan from the passengers.
She trudged back up the steps, wincing at every left step, and threw her most polite smile toward Avery as soon as her head crested the rail, but Avery wasn’t paying attention. At least, she wasn’t paying attention to Lia. Or her son, who was standing at the edge of the bridge. She was paying attention to Evan.
Evan was standing at the helm, the wind blowing his hair back, his mirrored glasses directed straight ahead, as if he didn’t know Avery was standing next to him. But of course he did: She was at his shoulder, talking nonstop. Words like “divorce,” “two years,” and “bastard” floated back toward Lia.
“Hey!” Lia greeted.
Evan looked back over his shoulder with such a sense of relief Lia actually felt sorry for him.
But his attention went right past her.
“Hey!” He shot forward, grabbing Avery’s little boy and yanking him back from the edge of the steps.
Evan’s deep voice, the sudden lunge, and the unwanted attention must have met in a terrible swirl for the little boy, and he burst into tears.
“I’m sorry,” Evan said, dropping the boy’s arm. “I just didn’t want . . .” He turned his ire on Lia. “Didn’t we discuss this?”
Lia didn’t think it was fair for Evan to turn on her, but he was right. A child didn’t belong up here. At least not with two adults who were so inattentive.
“Avery.” Lia turned to her calmly. “We like to keep children away from the captain’s bridge, and we prefer that adults stay on the lower decks, too.” She guided Avery back to the stairs as she talked. “Do you have questions, though? You must have a ton of questions to make your posts as accurate as they are. I can answer almost anything for you. And what I can’t answer, we’ll throw back to Captain Betancourt after the tour is over.” She flashed her best smile back at Evan, as if they were the closest of friends. Evan just stared at her, looking incredulous. “Maybe we can sit down in the galley. Did you get your cookie from Cora yet? Conner, did you get your cookie?”
In no time, Avery and Conner were smiling at her, Avery’s pride intact, as they made their way down the steep stairs and back toward the galley.
As soon as she got them settled with their free cookies, and Cora started telling them tales of sailing the Pacific, Lia sensed another passenger heading toward the bridge steps. Dang, she really needed to put that chain up.
“We’re going to let our captain concentrate on getting us out to sea,” she said, steering the two passengers in “Go Wisconsin!” sweatshirts away. “If you have questions for him, pass them along to me, and I’ll be sure to ask.” Marketing smile. Gentle touch to the elbow. Free cookie. Problem Two diverted.
Lia hustled back to get the chain rigged up across the bridge stairs. Just as she secured it, she heard a strange clicking over the speakers. Then the same series of clicks, repeated.
She sighed, undid her chain, and climbed back up. Her ankle was killing her.
“Are you signaling me?”
“On the radio, they said there were some grays just off Table Rock.” Evan pushed his hair back off his face and peered through the binoculars. “I’m going to head just to the west of them. We should be able to see them starboard, against the coastline.”
Unsure what to do with so many words from him, especially in a series that didn’t involve grunts or scowls, Lia staggered toward the console. “What should I tell everyone? Stand at two or three o’clock?”
“Let me get there first.”
He began heading in that direction, then glanced her way and frowned.
“Do you not want me to stand here?” she asked, unable to keep the aggravation out of her voice.
As simple and uninviting as the words were, they felt like some kind of a welcome mat coming from him. Lia let her shoulders relax.
“You should get off that foot,” Evan said.
“Too much to do.”
“Where’s the ice I gave you?”
“Downstairs. I’ll use it when we’re done.”
He shot her another look of annoyance. “Where downstairs?”
“On the counter.”
He reached just past her knee. “What’s your cook’s name again?”
“Cora. And she’s not just a cook; she happens to be a very fine friend of—”
“Cora,” Evan said into the microphone. “This is Captain Betancourt. Would you bring up the white tube of ice that’s on the counter, please?” He clicked the microphone off and put it back in place.
Lia blew out an aggravated breath. She was used to being the bossy one. She and Evan might very well throw each off the boat if they spent too much time together. Good thing she was getting rid of him. As soon as her mind formed the thought, her memory flashed to him that morning, standing there with the gun in his hand, looking like some kind of derelict. And then . . . to his beautiful bare chest, his muscled shoulders . . . She pushed her hair behind her ear and shoved both images out of her mind.
“Here ya go, Captain,” said Cora, just cresting the steps.
“Thanks, Cora. Give that to her, would you?” He motioned with his head.
“Did you hurt yourself, Lia?” Cora asked.
“I’ll be fine.” Lia snatched the emergency ice away, embarrassed. She didn’t like people fussing over her. “Thank you.”
Coraline headed back down the steps while Lia calculated her getaway. She just needed a few notes about the whales—what kind they were encountering, which side of the boat they’d be on for sure—then she could use the microphone downstairs. “Are we almost there?”
Evan glanced at the navigation screen. “Five more minutes. Have a seat.”
“Are they grays?”
“Won’t know for sure ’til I get there.”
White water formed a froth beneath the cat as they skittered over the waves. If she sat down and took her weight off her ankle now, it was going to throb and swell like crazy. It seemed best to stay on it until the tour was over, then she could relax. She shifted to make it more comfortable.
Evan did a double-take over his shoulder. “You don’t take orders very well, do you?”
“Not my strong suit.”
With one quick shake of his head, he yanked the emergency ice stick out of her hand, snapped it in two, then handed it back. It was turning ice-cold immediately.
“That’s not going to last long, and it’s the only one we have, so sit down and put that on your ankle.”
His constant string of orders was getting on her nerves. But, with a huff, she sat on the captain’s bench and wrapped the tube around her ankle as best she could.
“You can give the narration from up here,” he said.
“I thought you wanted this area cleared.”
“I did. But you can stay. You’re like bug repellant.”
Lia blinked and finally closed her mouth.
The ice did feel good against her ankle. And it did feel good to get off it for a second. Frustrated that he was right about everything, she strove to think of other reasons she needed to go downstairs: “Kyle Stevens wants a tour of the boat,” she remembered aloud.
“Kyle Stevens can wait.”
The boat made a slight arc farther out into the ocean, still skating over the waves. Lia turned her head into the wind and pushed her hair over her shoulder, giving up on fighting and just enjoying the momentary feeling of being “off.”
Up here, with Evan, she had no one to impress. Obviously, she wasn’t impressing him—she’d given up a long time ago thinking that would ever happen, even though she generally liked people to like her—but, she had to admit, it was kind of refreshing. He clearly didn’t want to talk. She loved to talk, and probably talked too much even for her friends and family, but it was kind of nice to be silent for a while. He made it feel oddly comfortable.
“And would you look at that?” He lifted the binoculars, breaking his own silence. Though his voice had sounded angry and curt all day long, right now it sounded strangely reverent.
His hand brushed her knee again and loosened the microphone, handing it to her. “Get ready, Cinderella. We’re ready to roll.”